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Cooking Up Change: Family Cookbooks as Markers of Shifting Kitchen Politics

  • Emily Weiskopf-Ball

Corps de l’article

In June 2007, I made a cookbook for the wedding of my cousin, Brienne Kearns, to her fiancé, Jack Ecker. Born just 11 days apart, Brienne and I have always been close. We are first cousins, as our mothers are sisters. Although she lived four hours away in Blind River, Ontario, we nevertheless spent a lot of time together during her many visits to my hometown of Astorville, Ontario. Given our closeness, I wanted to give her a special wedding gift – a gift that couldn’t be bought, yet something that she would be proud to own.

My own wedding took place the year before, and I knew from experience that recipes from childhood are not fixed permanently in one’s brain. Since leaving home, I had often called my mother, grandmothers, and aunts for recipes or help with making certain foods. By then, I had already started my personal cookbook and knew that Brienne did not have one of her own. To complicate gift-giving matters, Brienne and Jack were moving to Ecuador for a year to teach. Knowing that most of their presents were going to stay packed up in boxes in Canada, I wanted to give them something that they could, and would, take with them.

At the time, I did not realize that either cookbook writing or recipe sharing had long and important traditions. While I intended to bring both families together with this gift, I did not realize the extent to which I was creating a sense of community over the course of the book’s pages. Indeed, while this family cookbook is different from the community cookbooks that groups have long used to raise money for various causes, it nevertheless constructs an explicit sense of community. When Anne L. Bower published Recipes for Reading in 1997, no one had really written about community cookbooks. They had been ignored because of their amateur quality and because they “do not contain particular voices or truly communicate the specialness of one group of people in a certain place and time.” [1] That is, community cookbooks seldom clarify their editorial direction or introduce their contributors and, being more concerned with including, not selecting, contributors, often provide multiple versions of a recipe. However, Bower qualifies these claims by arguing that some community cookbooks are far from generic. These compilations can tell important stories about the people who compiled them and should thus be read “for information about [the contributors’] lives and values.” [2] The many contributors to Recipes for Reading, as well as more recent commentary on recipe collections, [3] clearly suggest that some community cookbooks do “surpass [these] assumed limitations” [4] by being rich, historical texts through which we can better understand the social mores that govern the lives of those who compiled them.

Recent literature has expanded our definition of community cookbooks and proven that they can be used to understand how individual women and ethnic groups function and interact within and between larger social constructs. In Eat My Words, Janet Theophano thoroughly analyzes personal cookbooks that have been passed down from one generation to another, but she almost exclusively analyzes cookbooks compiled by one woman – who sometimes acquires recipes from other women in her community or from printed sources. Andrea Eidinger’s study of A Treasure for My Daughter[5] Marlene Epp’s work on Mennonite cookbooks, [6] and Marie Drews’ examination of In Memory’s Kitchen [7] demonstrate that women have historically banded together to compile works for their daughters to ensure that the next generation maintains important cultural food traditions. However, as Eidinger and Epp most clearly exemplify, these cookbooks are intended for a general reader (albeit within a community) rather than for a specific family or family member.

Despite this recent scholarship on community cookbooks, little attention has been given to family cookbooks compiled for family members. By looking at cookbooks that were created as gifts or homemade compilations, we can see subtle, yet telling, messages about the foods that are made within an immediate or extended, but always evolving, family. In this sense, family cookbooks are essentially a version of the common community cookbook. They are sometimes organized compilations edited by a designated family member; other times they are a hasty accumulation of recipes put together when an individual moves out of the family home, or they are gathered over time through inquiry and practice. These books take a variety forms: typed out or handwritten recipes put together in a folder or individual cards placed in a recipe box. They might come from acquaintances or from popular media. No matter their form or influence, family cookbooks provide a decisive glimpse into a family’s real foodways.

Family cookbooks create community in many ways. First, their influences – sometimes in the form of actual handwritten recipes or copied-out instructions – bind individuals from many different generations. As recipes are passed from one person to another, they are subject to the whims and desires of their makers. New technologies, for example, may make a recipe easier to make, just as the addition or omission of certain spices may alter its flavour. Yet, the original recipe and recipe maker are still there, lurking in the background and exerting an influence from the shadows. Second, family cookbooks chart a family’s evolution. New recipes can signal changes in economic and social circumstances. New voices signal growth, while voices that disappear highlight losses or tensions. Nevertheless, the mixture of voices creates a sense of community by defining a family’s food habits. Thus, family cookbooks build community by creating, sustaining, and supporting ties among kin.

Men and children do not usually participate in creating community cookbooks. Sherrie Inness in Dinner Roles [8] and Nickie Charles and Marion Kerr in Women, Food and Family [9] document the imbalance of food-related work in the home by showing that women have almost always been the primary food makers. In her analysis of cookbooks for children and adolescents, Inness notes that, during their formative years, girls learn to serve men, while boys learn to be served. [10] Boys, she goes on to explain, typically learn to cook either to ensure survival in case a female is unable to make them food or to become an expert at a specific dish. The essays in John Donohue’s anthology, however, make explicit that the makeup of modern families has changed and men are becoming more active in the kitchen. It is clear from Donohue’s anthology that in some home kitchens men are permanent fixtures, while in others, men only flirt with the designation of cook. I wonder then if men have made these changes permanent, leaving traces of their cooking prowess. Are they passing recipes on to other men and women? Whereas community cookbooks have not traditionally called on men to participate, family cookbooks I propose – with evidence from the family cookbook in question – offer men a venue to voice their opinions on their family’s foodways and, therefore, can help us answer questions about gender and cookbooks.

Children have long played with kitchen toys, and they have also been targeted as consumers of cooking books and child-size kitchen tools. [11] In fact, children’s cookbooks and toys have been influential means by which girls and boys have learned “their ‘proper’ domestic responsibilities ... in areas ranging from cooking to taking out the trash.” [12] Furthermore, as the American journalist Alexandra Zissu reports in her article “These Kids Never Say ‘Yech!’,” these “increasingly sophisticated” [13] food toys, along with the explosion of cooking classes for kids and literature on the benefits of prenatal exposure to a variety of tastes, have created a society in which children are, more than ever, making a place for themselves in the space that once belonged primarily to adult women. But how much influence do children have in actually shaping their family’s foodways? Children create cookbooks for school projects, but their audience is generally small. There is no doubt that children may influence contributions to more public and widely circulated community cookbooks, but the venue is not their own. Children share food over lunch by trading and comparing the items in their lunch boxes. Thus family cookbooks may include recipes brought in by children from other homes. These inclusions bridge families in interesting and unexpected ways. Children can also be very picky eaters. As such, parents often attempt to accommodate their children’s tastes, which may account for an overrepresentation of a certain food or ingredient in a family’s cookbook. Thus the changes in kitchen dynamics can be heard calling out from family cookbooks. This cacophony of needs, desires, and identities has only complicated the answer to a seemingly simple question about who makes food in the privacy of the home. More so than regular cookbooks, family cookbooks provide us with “glimpses into the constraints and freedoms women encounter in their lives and the people, places, and activities that they value.” [14] Recipe choices, a variety of handwritten notes, modifications, and references to other individuals also “[evoke] a universe inhabited by women both in harmony and in tension with their families, their communities, and the larger social world.” [15] Drawing on past and current criticism to analyze the family cookbook I made and gave to Brienne for her wedding, this essay brings academic attention to family cookbooks and family food practices. While the cookbook I analyze is one edited by a woman, the many voices included in this collection, including those of men and children, suggest that when given a chance, these often silent groups can, and do, impact a family’s food habits.

Compiling a Cookbook: Self as Editor

I compiled my cousin’s recipe book in 2007 and examine it now in 2013. Looking at the cookbook from this specific and somewhat distant lens, I must be sure not to inflate my role as editor or use the present to influence my investigation of this recipe collection. While I am in contact with many of the cookbook’s contributors, I do not want to taint the way they represented themselves in 2007 with their present views of themselves. These individuals and the roles they play in their kitchens have likely evolved, and they might contribute different recipes if the project were to be duplicated today. They may also view their food practices differently than they did six years ago. Consequently, my analysis of the book I named “Family Secrets” [16] rests entirely on what is printed in the book. Having emailed as many of the members of Brienne’s and Jack’s families as I could, I eventually received 45 recipes that I separated into seven categories: Breakfast and Snack Foods (7 entries), Appetizers and Starters (4 entries), Soups (4 entries), Main Meals and Side Dishes (14 entries), Salad (1 entry), Desserts (11 entries), and Beverages (4 entries).

As a member of Brienne’s family, I have insider knowledge of her maternal family: the Rocheforts. This French-Canadian family lives predominantly in Astorville, Ontario. Some of their recipes are traditional French-Canadian foods or foods that I have eaten numerous times and have come to associate with specific people. Brienne’s paternal family, whom I do not know, did not contribute to the recipe book. Of Jack’s family, I also know relatively little. Other than the brief explanations provided by the Eckers and Killins in their recipes, most of what I know about them comes from their contributions.

As the editor, I made no attempt to correct spelling mistakes and typographical errors in the recipes. I wanted to capture the distinctive, idiomatic voices as well as the individuals as they chose to present themselves. I remember having been surprised and touched by the personal anecdotes that accompanied many of the recipes and felt it was better to leave them as they were to represent the contributors authentically and accurately. Yet, on this point, I am most embarrassed by the spelling errors that take away from the book’s overall quality. However, personal touches such as my father’s handwritten corrections and my cousin’s emoticons, which I will discuss later, are the means through which this cookbook re-creates the people who make up Brienne and Jack’s new family. Most of the contributions are in English, though a few are in French, and a few use both languages. In the same spirit of authenticity, I did not translate the recipes. Thus, this partly bilingual work reveals the extent to which linguistic identity plays out in this family’s kitchens: all the members of the Rochefort family speak fluent French, but the majority of them cook and bake in English. I did make some alterations to the original recipes. For example, I gave them all the same font and made them fit on eight inch by eight inch pages. For almost a week, I toiled with a rotary cutter, scrapbooking paper, the recipes, stickers, and stamps to order and embellish the content. The finished product is both recipe book and scrapbook, as the pages were inserted into a photo album.

To avoid redundancies and to highlight the coming together of families, the recipes from the two families are intermingled. In the end, I received 26 recipes from Brienne’s family and 19 from Jack’s. Within the collection, 30 are from women, 3 from couples, 8 from men, and 4 from children under the age of 12. Since the recipe contributor was, in my opinion, as important as the recipe itself, I stamped the name of each person at the bottom of her or his recipe. By making the names more prominent than the recipe titles, I hoped to highlight the numerous people that had come together to shape Brienne and Jack’s foodways. These voices give the recipes what Susan Leonardi praises as “a recommendation, a context, a point, a reason-to-be.” [17] As one reads the book, the two families merge into one.

Importantly, the messages embedded within the recipes, not the recipes themselves, are more telling of family dynamics and the individuals who participated in this project. From the beginning, Family Secretsaimed to define the families and cooking communities from which Brienne and Jack came. On the first page of the book I wrote, this “compilation of both families’ main/favourite meals would be a good way to start [them] off” and that Brienne and Jack now had “the ‘best’ of both sides” with which they could “start to build [their] own lives, memories, traditions, and menus.” [18] Although Family Secretsonly grants us a glimpse of these two families, it nevertheless provides us with a good sense of where the food Brienne and Jack eat and value comes from and how food can be used to shape family identity. The women’s, men’s, and children’s voices speak to the new couple by showing Brienne and Jack where they fit within their families’ food-making hierarchies. Those voices also prove that family cookbooks are telling “narratives about our own ... lives.” [19] Family cookbooks are about real people; in this case, the cookbook created a sense of community centred on two specific people.

Female Voices: Laying the Foundation of a Community

As a female-dominated work created for one woman primarily by a collective of women, Family Secrets is very much like the community cookbooks described in such scholarship as Bower’s Recipes for Reading, Diane Tye’s Baking as Biography, and Epp’s “More than ‘Just’ Recipes: Mennonite Cookbooks in Mid-Twentieth Century North America.” Although there are many female contributors, it is the voices of Grand-maman (Brienne’s maternal grandmother), Maman (Brienne’s mother), Mary Lynne/“mom” (Jack’s mother), and myself, Emily, that clearly dominate this work.

In “Cooking Up Stories: Narrative Elements in Community Cookbooks,” Anne Bower identifies three themes common to community cookbooks: women as “professionals of domestic work,” [20] “food as an expression of culture – an art,” [21] and “the breaking of silence, the coming to public voice of people denied that voice in the past.” [22] In Grand-maman’s entries, all three themes loudly jump off the page. Like the women in Sonia Cancian’s study of Italian women in Montreal [23] and the Ukrainian women in Stacey Zembrzycki’s project about growing up in Sudbury during the Depression, [24] Grand-maman did not learn to cook as a child. Once she married, however, she assumed her role as family food maker and learned to cook by calling her mother and sisters for advice. [25]

In Family Secrets,” Grand-maman first appears with Soupe, a recipe she invented with “beaucoup de légumes verts, car je m’aperçois que nous ne mangeons pas assez de légumes verts.” [26] In her second entry, Peach Can Crisp, she explains that she would make an apple crisp for dessert “chaque fois qu’il m’arrivait de la visite surprise... les fruits peuvent être changé pour pommes bluets [sic] ou pèches.” [27] Inventing a new recipe for soup and modifying ingredients for crisp are well within the realm of Grand-maman’s expertise and demonstrate her experience and resourcefulness as a cook. Although her recipes have clear instructions, they encourage Brienne and Jack to modify them. From her entries, one gathers that food should be enjoyed. Her recipes are malleable and engage the couple in a discussion about the best way to prepare and serve these dishes. Grand-maman’s recipes clearly identify her as a knowledgeable domestic professional able, as Elizabeth McDougal writes, to “[reflect on] the communal sense of cooking and [work within its] tradition.” [28] By offering Brienne and Jack advice on how to choose and prepare healthy food full of green vegetables and how to be good hosts, Grand-maman proves to be one of those recipe writers who hopes to “[prevent] a mistake that has been experienced by the writer from being passed on to the reader.” [29]

As a woman who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, Grand-maman has had few opportunities to create a public identity through a career. While she has been active in her church and helped out when Grand-papa started his heating business, she never had a full-time career outside the home after her wedding. Nevertheless, she writes herself into Brienne’s and Jack’s lives as an authority on food for as long as they keep this book. She cannot be silenced within these pages. Although she likely did not realize it when she submitted her entries, cookbooks, especially family ones,

[render] the invisible and transient – often thankless and taken-for-granted – work indelible, noticed, and worthy. Women [use] recipe books ... as forums for self-expression [where] ... they [express] everything from pride and pleasure in their accomplishments to resentment, anger, and frustration with all that they [are] expected to do. [30]

Although these recipes are not family favourites, as the oldest living female member of this family, Grand-maman clearly seeks to use this opportunity to transmit her tricks of the trade and to share an enthusiasm for food preparation. Evidently, updating her culinary repertoire and being caught off guard by “unexpected guests” are issues with which she has been challenged and wants to help this new couple avoid.

The next generation of women, Brienne’s and Jack’s mothers, are more concerned with teaching Brienne and Jack about their food and their families than finding a public voice or establishing themselves as domestic professionals. In her first entry, Soupe à l’oignon, Brienne’s mother leaves a lot of room for interpretation. After a few basic instructions, she addresses the reader directly: “Tu peux ici, y ajouter du thym, ou une feuille de laurier, ou un peu d’origan, un peu de brandy, ou tout simplement du sel et du poivre.” [31] There is an assumed relationship here – as if Brienne and her mother have made the recipe together and have tried these various acceptable alternatives. Despite the apparent flexibility of the recipe, however, Brienne’s mother reveals her preferences for certain cheeses, breads, and serving dish. The recipe closes with “Joyeux Noël, Brienne” as if she is expecting Brienne to consult it in December. Indeed, I know that this soup is a traditional Christmas Eve dish in their family, and it is very likely that, even in Ecuador, Brienne would turn to this recipe during the Christmas holidays.

Many critics have written about a recipe’s ability to evoke memories and some go as far as describing recipe reading as a way to tour or visit a place one can no longer access. [32] Reading Soupe à l’oignon in Ecuador, Brienne, and Jack, will be transported to Blind River, Ontario. If they actually make the soup, its smell and taste will allow them to imagine themselves in the Kearns’ cozy northern Ontario home. They will be connected to the rest of the family despite the many kilometres that separate them.

Also significant about Maman’s recipes is the way in which she uses them to delimit the community of female cooks that has defined Brienne’s family’s food habits. Recipes such as Pineapple Meringue Cake, “Recette de Grand-maman Rolande Rochefort devenu le préféré de la famille Kearns,” [33] Lemon Cake, “La recette à Granny,” [34] and Wind & Water, “[l]a recette à Granny que Brienne et Christianne ont toujours aimée,” [35] clearly demonstrate that favourite foods have come from both Brienne’s maternal and paternal sides. Maman not only includes her mother’s and her deceased mother-in-law’s recipes but also names the one daughter who did not contribute to the project. Through her submissions, Brienne’s mother shares the genealogy of the family’s favourite foods and defines the community of cooking women in which Brienne grew up.

Although I do not know Jack’s mother very well, her entries show us that she also uses recipes to define and invite Brienne into a community of cooking women. In both of her entries, Mary Lynne identifies herself first as “mom” and then in parenthesis as “Mary Lynne.” This doubling of herself signals that she is addressing both Jack and Brienne but that the relationship with her son is still more intimate than the one with her new daughter-in-law. There is also no doubt that these recipes are more realistically intended for Brienne than for Jack. In Jean’s Shrimp Dip, for example, she explains to Brienne that “Jean is the name of an old friend from Napanee, where Jack lived when he was very small. He probably doesn’t even remember [her].” [36] Critics argue that women often feel pressure to tailor their cooking styles and food choices to their husband’s preferences. Sometimes, as demonstrated by Charles and Kerr as well as Stephen Mennell, Anne Murcott, and Anneke van Otterloo, [37] this pressure is self-imposed and comes from a gendered belief that women should cater to their husbands. Other times, as in Theophano’s account of a servant’s present to her charge’s future wife, [38] this pressure comes from the husband’s primary female caretaker. Although Mary Lynne’s hints are subtle, they are nevertheless suggesting appropriate food for Jack.

Family and community cookbooks “might lure us into believing that all the women who wrote or contributed to one another’s books were social equals ... However, looking carefully in these kitchen artifacts, we discover clues that women knew of the cultural and social differences among them.” [39] Mary Lynn is clearly not as close to Brienne as some of the other women in this collection are. But critics such as Susan Leonardi [40] and Ann Romines have demonstrated that “community cookbooks bring people together by erasing social tensions that exist between groups.” [41] In Barbecued Chicken Pizza, Mary Lynne exclaims that this is “[n]ot a recipe Jack grew up with, but [he] and Brienne had this at our place one night and they seemed to like it!” [42] Mary Lynne is concerned about Jack having access to food he likes, but she is also using this opportunity to establish a genuine connection with her future daughter-in-law and to make their relationship more intimate and personal.

Most of the recipes teach Brienne about the women in this family. With very few exceptions, the submissions name not only the contributor but also her physical location. I doubt that the structure is a coincidence: Mary Lynne appears to have done some editing of her own. Furthermore, many of the Ecker recipes are annotated in the third person. For example, in Chicken Wing Dip, the note claims the recipe has been “forwarded to her from her American in-laws.” In Carrot Pineapple Muffins, the note says: “If she doesn’t have a pie baked whenever you drop in, she’s likely to have muffins. And this is one of her favourites. ML.” [43] As with her own contributions, Mary Lynne’s editing can be understood as a way to define and invite Brienne into this new family by creating a sense of community. Analyzed together, her editorial efforts echo those of Brienne’s own mother. Both women want to teach Brienne (and Jack) about family ties, about who makes food in the home, and about what tastes and techniques are privileged over others.

The final dominant female voice is my own. Like many others, I picked recipes that reminded me of Brienne. For example, in Cheese Tortellini with Mushrooms and Prosciutto, I explain, “the fact that it is mushroom based makes [this recipe] a good choice. Brienne almost always orders a meal filled with mushrooms ... Also, my pick wouldn’t be mine unless it came from the LCBO Food & Drink magazine!” [44] In Gloomy Day Smoothie, I share that Brienne “introduced me to the world of smoothies one morning. Unfortunately, I spilled the whole smoothie on the floor because I had never used a blender before!” [45] This particular smoothie – gleaned from a recipe site ― is described in the following terms: “so bright, cheerful, and delicious, it is like a blast of sunshine on even the most rainy, windy days!” [46] Having less experience in the kitchen than the other women, my recipes do not evoke the same flexibility or sense of community. I neither invented nor modified the recipes I contributed. I did not make connections between myself and my extended family. Rather, my contributions articulate that Brienne and I are connected through food. We are not just cousins but close cousins who know each other well. I care about her tastes and want to share with her recipes she does not know but should enjoy. As young women starting the next stage of our lives, I want to acknowledge that she has had an influence on my personal foodways by teaching me to make and appreciate new foods. My recipes communicate that I hope to reciprocate this intimate, didactic sharing.

Recent critical attention has bemoaned the presence of superstar cookbooks and television stars in everyday cooking. Kathleen LeBasco and Peter Neccarato assert that such stars motivate people to imagine themselves participating in a higher social class. This, of course, also reinforces their sense of belonging to the very class they are trying to escape. [47] Frances Short argues that the beautiful images in magazines, with their precise instructions, are often criticized as being “inflexible constructs of ingredients and methods that halt creativity and spontaneity.” [48] It is odd that I, who wanted to create a collection of family favourites, did not follow my own directions but, rather, included foods that are not the least bit related to our Franco-Ontarian heritage or that we have shared previously. Was I trying to distance myself from family foodways or reimagine myself as a member of a different class? I do not think that was the case. Rather, I believe that these recipes prove that cookbooks are indeed collaborative, flexible documents. Alongside the traditional foods in “Family Secrets,” such as cipaille, tourtière, and bûche de Noël, are superstar recipes. Mary Lynne’s Barbecued Chicken Pizza, for example, is a Martha Stewart recipe. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that many of the entries from the second- and third-generations are not original creations, even though we may have come to associate them with certain individuals. Theophano’s case studies in Eat My Words show that recipes have always been borrowed, exchanged, used, and modified and that they have come not only from friends and family but also from the popular print publications of the time. Early examples, such as Jean Janviers’ 1837 cookbook, demonstrate that women have historically been drawn to ask about, copy out, or request recipes. Janviers’ cookbook is a mixture of recipes written by herself and others. Moreover, the availability of “print media such as newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets [in the mid-nineteenth century] gave women additional ways to augment their own culinary repertoires and compile their cookbooks.” [49] While women continued to share with each other, cookbook examples such as Jean Campbell’s illustrate that women began to “collage or ...  scrapbook [by placing] print and script side by side.” [50] Other examples include women either collaging a variety of print texts or using print texts as a basis for their own cookbooks, which they would modify over time. Whether it is the Five Roses: A Guide to Good Cooking or the LCBO Food & Drink magazine, inexpensive print texts have allowed women to write themselves into culinary existence and to augment their skills and repertoires.

My recipes, like Grand-maman’s Soupe à l’oignon and Mary Lynne’s Barbecued Chicken Pizza, are meant to bring Brienne and Jack comfort and remind them of good times spent with family. Since food “suits the desires of an audience yearning for [specific] colors, smells, [and] warmth,” [51] recipes like these were clearly chosen to support the couple during emotionally turbulent times. Together, these three generations of women create a narrative by women, about women, bonding through food. They establish themselves as important and influential food makers who shape and share food practices within and for these families. These women care about Brienne, Jack, and good food; they want to be seen as good cooks. Immortalized in this anthology, this version of themselves will live on forever.

Male Entries: Stunt Cooking and Couple Recipes

According to Gary Draper, “[t]he community cookbook ...  is a place where women can express themselves in print. As literature, the form may be a modest one. But its social impact can be enormous.” [52] Draper points out that men do not have a comparable venue to express their culinary prowess. In fact, his comments echo those of Christopher Dummit, who asserts that men have long contributed to domestic work, but because this work challenged gendered assumptions about public and private work and spaces, it was labelled a hobby. [53] Inness supports this claim. In her chapter “‘The Enchantment of Mixing Spoons’ Cooking Lessons for Girls and Boys,” she shows that children’s cookbooks enforce these gender stereotypes. [54] The same is true of family cookbooks in which men have rarely had a voice. For men who want to be in the kitchen and for women who want men to be more active in the kitchen, the challenge comes from what Shankar Vedantam calls “[t]he dumb stereotypes in our hidden brain ...  that tell us that people who cook in homes are women, and people who cook in restaurants are men. The only way to erase these nasty ideas from our unconscious minds is to provide our minds, and the minds of our children, with images that counter the stereotypes.” [55]

Other academics have also attempted to break from stereotypes. Mennell, Murcott, and van Otterloo examine studies of gender and food choice by academics such as Murcott and Charles and Kerr and highlight that scholarly interest is often too narrow because it relies on stereotypes. They argue that if men’s participation in food making has not been documented by the academic community, it is quite likely because “investigations ... persist in casting their question as ‘who does the cooking’ [and therefore] are very likely to persist in getting the answer ‘the women.’” [56] The issue, Murrell et al. insist, is that even in oral history projects with female participants, researchers “[persist] in missing the opportunity even to begin to penetrate the complex relation between the attribution of shared meanings and the actual distribution of labour, never mind the place of both in the overall political economy of the household.” [57] Thus in an effort to advance Mennell et al.’s proposition, this essay analyzes representative male entries from Brienne’s and Jack’s families. Allowed a voice in this family cookbook, men represent themselves rather than defer to the women and their representation of masculine contributions. In this way, we are able to gauge the extent to which gender stereotypes have influenced and will influence the couple’s past and present foodways.

In his introduction to Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families, John Donohue asserts that “[m]en who cook for their families are more likely to be happy than those who don’t.” [58] “Night after night,” he writes, “when I whipped up something delicious that pleased Sarah and fed Aurora and Isis, I felt like I was doing something so right that I couldn’t possibly go wrong.” [59] This sentiment, one usually expressed by women who feel not only “personal gratification and pride [but also] ... appreciated and valorized by everyone gathered around the table,” [60] is echoed in a number of other essays throughout Donohue’s anthology. Unfortunately, as Inness’ analysis of children’s and adolescents’ cookbooks has shown, boys are often taught early on that they need to learn to cook only to prepare for emergencies or special situations. Such a limited attitude towards cooking is also the subject of the personal essays in Donohue’s work. For example, in “Stunt Foodways,” [61] Manny Howard reflects on the big cooking stunts he has long enjoyed performing. Although we might be quick to dismiss them as insignificant, stunts are very telling of family food practices and changing kitchen politics. Just like the presence and absence of stunt foods in Brienne’s and Jack’s families, the male contributions in Family Secrets shape two pictures of a man’s place in the kitchen.

In the Rochefort family, all but two men contributed to the cookbook. The most significant male entry comes from Papa, Brienne’s father. In his Pineapple Upside-Down Cake recipe, he cries: “Heh! Don’t forget my pineapple upside-down cake! Papa!” [62] Certainly, there was a chance that he might have been left out, and he wanted his voice to be heard. His version of pineapple cake follows that of Brienne’s mother – a recipe that had been inherited from her own mother. Along with the two versions of biscuits submitted by Jack’s sister and Brienne’s uncle Wilfrid, these pineapple recipes represent the only instance of doubling in the cookbook. As previously mentioned, women are often pressured to modify their foodways in order to accommodate male preferences. In this case, however, both partners show similar tastes; hence, there would not have been a need to negotiate a definition for and choice of a good dessert in their home. The two versions of the dessert not only align the male and female partners in terms of tastes but also raise the possibility of competition and tension in their kitchen. Whose recipe is actually made in their home, and which one is preferred? While we are not given the answers to these questions, the fact remains that if Pineapple Meringue Cake is a Kearns family favourite and if both parents included a recipe based on the same principal ingredient, then the two obviously have compatible taste buds that align them as members of the same family and cooking community. While the actual extent of his cooking skills cannot be gleaned from this single entry, its presence nevertheless signals that he functions within the space. This might be a “stunt,” but it is his stunt. He claims it and presents it as important enough to pass on to his daughter and son-in-law.

A second male contributor is Brienne’s uncle Wilfrid, my father. He told me I could include the Tea Biscuit recipe he makes most Sunday mornings, so I typed out the version my mother and I use from the Five Roses: A Guide to Good Cooking. [63] When I showed him the final version of “Family Secrets,” he adamantly told me that I had not listed the right ingredients. Rather than let me give the “wrong” recipe, he made changes with a ballpoint pen right on the embellished page. As a member of this family, I know that neither of these two men prepares more than the occasional food item. Yet, they clearly have an understanding of food preparation and how recipes work. As Elizabeth McDougall explains, “[m]aking food is not solving the puzzle of the recipe; it is the intersection of a text with a reader that leads to an understanding and a finished product specific to that reader.” [64] For both men, this understanding is a recipe with which they are associated and through which their authentic identity can be evoked. Brienne’s father and uncle, Wilfrid, do indeed seem to be “making public their favourite or prized recipes [as] a way of ‘making themselves visible.’” [65] These are recipes they make, or stunts they perform, on special occasions. Yet rather than dismiss these stunts as insignificant, one should see that these recipes signal an exception to the stereotype that only women can make good food. The six male Rochefort recipes, as well as the three Rochefort couple contributions, show us that men have, or at least are allowed, a space in these kitchens. In fact, even if it is just from time to time, there is an expectation that these “food acts” will be performed.

I must admit that, since I do not know Jack’s family very well, I cannot explain why Blitz Brunch Bake and Cream of Broccoli Soup are the only two male Ecker entries. Though the latter recipe provides little narrative or personal information, Jack’s brother-in-law’s Blitz Brunch Bake clearly marks him as a fanatic consumer of a meal his wife makes “with a kind of reverence and ceremony.” [66] Thus while his message suggests that he is enthusiastic about good food, he is not the one making it. Jeremy’s recipe also warns that Brienne and Jack will “have to control [them]selves lest [they] become some kind of monsterous [sic] cheese dish recluse, only leaving the house for more ricotta when the internet delivery service stops coming because of the smell.” [67] Through a construct that mimics Grand-maman’s advice and enthusiasm, Jeremy demonstrates a man’s ability to use the recipe and cookbook convention to influence the couple’s future baking decisions. Importantly, the two male entries from the Ecker family, unlike the Rochefort family, reveal that at the time “Family Secrets” was compiled the Ecker men either did not have a place in their family’s cooking community or were not influential enough to identify themselves as members of this community. Unlike the many male and couple contributors from Brienne’s side, the absence of male contributors on the Ecker side conveys a strong message about who makes food in the Ecker’s homes.

While the Rochefort women might have pushed the men to contribute, the Rocherfort men’s voices are present, while Jack’s male family members are absent. At the very least, the male Rochefort entries signal that men and women discussed potential entries to the cookbook and that their ideas were valued enough to be submitted. Even if such discussions did take place in the Ecker homes, the end product is strictly female contributions. The Ecker recipes beg questions such as: Does Jack’s father ever prepare food? Had Jack been encouraged to cook as a teenager and young adult? Have the Ecker men been silenced by a genre that they or their spouses conceived as female? Or were the men simply too busy to submit recipes of their own? Although this essay cannot begin to address all of these issues, “Family Secrets” nevertheless demonstrates that these two families voice different limits for their male members. Essentially, the message is that Brienne comes from a family where men share in domestic duties and that the good food Jack’s family has taught him to value is something he can produce as well. Furthermore, critics and authors have noted that men do have childhood memories of being in the kitchen even if they, like the women discussed earlier, were not actively involved. [68] The difference, it appears, is that men have not traditionally been called on to make use of these memories, whereas women have not had a choice but to do so. While many cookbooks have celebrated women’s ways of creating feminine identity, others, such as this one, challenge our ideas of feminine space and work. “Family Secrets” is thus a cookbook that allows some men “to cross boundaries [and] ... is a way to signal and affirm affiliation” [69] between male cooks and the couple.

Children in the Kitchen

Children, like men, are not as often present in family and community cookbooks – as contributors in their own right – as women are. Critics like Tye and Charles and Kerr have noted that women consider their children’s preferences when deciding what to make. In Baking as Biography, Tye explains that her mother commented on her brother’s preferences by writing them directly on certain recipes. [70] As a picky eater, her brother had a voice loud enough to give him a place in her mother’s cookbook. Thus while child-chosen recipes are often part of a family cookbook, they are not usually overtly connected to the child who “chose” the dish. Child cooks and children’s cookbooks have only recently become the focus of critical attention. As the previous sections have illustrated, women and men act out the kitchen and cooking practices they witnessed growing up. As adults, women have traditionally taken over the role of primary food maker, even if they work full-time outside the home. While children have traditionally been excluded from the kitchen, the four recipes submitted to “Family Secrets” by or on behalf of children signal that this convention is changing. Children, it appears, are not only interested in playing a larger role in the kitchen but, more important, they are being encouraged to do so. Of the four child-submitted recipes in “Family Secrets,” Sophie’s banana and peanut butter tortilla named Andrew and Marielle’s Fettuccini were clearly written and submitted without any adult influence. [71]

When learning to cook, many children start with basic foods. Letting a child manipulate boiling water requires a level of trust and skill that can come with guided practice only. Marielle’s Fettuccini, a version of what some might consider an “adult” recipe, is the best example of a child actively engaging with adults, using an adult medium to express herself. With very few ingredients, fettuccini is a flexible recipe that can be modified to suit the maker’s preferences. The title of this particular version of fettuccini tells the reader that Marielle is, in part, creating herself by means of the ingredients she decides to include and that she, like the men and women discussed earlier, can manipulate a recipe to reach a desired outcome. Moreover, this recipe proves that she has been apprenticing in becoming a cook. In his essay “Putting Food on the Family,” Simon Hitt claims that his own daughter’s ability to independently produce a quality dinner is a sign that the kitchen, which “had been a battleground in the 1970s [and was] the place from which all women had to be emancipated ... had been reentered [sic] by men and women alike. Its repute as a ghetto for women’s work [is] as remote to these kids as the reputation of colonial frontiersmen for being smelly. That room [has] been completely [and metaphorically] renovated.” [72]

Despite its adult components, Marielle’s recipe is obviously written by a child. Directly under the title she says that this recipe is “YUMMY IN THE TUMMY!” and that it was “invented by her.” [73] Furthermore, she includes an MSN winking emoticon in her message. The combination of enthusiasm, ownership, and MSN enhancement results in a more personal, and slightly less professional, version of the recommendations and comments included by adult contributors. The recipe itself is consistent with someone who is aware of the recipe writing convention and someone who is still learning. After a basic list of ingredients (“flour, water, Classico basil pesto, ground mustard (Club House), butter (meltted) [sic], and feta chees [sic]”), she lists the six steps that must be completed to make her fettuccini successfully. These steps indicate an intimate knowledge of the recipe. For example, after telling the reader to “ad some water and flour” to a warmed pot, she explains that “[i]f it gets to thick ad more water and if to liquid ad mor flour.” [74] She even takes the time to tell the reader to stir the butter “nice and slowly until meltted.” [75] These specific instructions show that Marielle has not only tried this recipe before but also learned to troubleshoot problems. Like Uncle Wilfrid’s corrections, her tips prove that she wants Brienne and Jack to successfully reproduce this recipe.

In “Delicious Supplements: Literary Cookbooks as Additives to Children’s Texts,” Jodie Slothower and Jan Susina argue that cookbooks are increasingly directed at children. These cookbooks “create a community of child readers and adults assisting child cooks ...  [allowing] the creation of community ... more immediate[ly].” [76] Just as men should not be excluded because they are not traditionally part of the culinary world, children should not be dismissed because of their lack of experience. Young contributors to this cookbook, such as Marielle, demonstrate that children do care and do know something about the tradition of good food and inclusive community this cookbook sought to celebrate. While there is no doubt that men are becoming more and more involved in daily food making, children, generally, cannot do it on their own. Although their contributions to “Family Secrets” may seem less significant than other groups’ and sections, their recipes, and the discussion they stimulate, have permitted me to call attention to the changing dynamics of the family home and cookbook.


In 2007, when Brienne and Jack were planning their wedding and their trip to Ecuador, they probably were not wondering about who would make food in their home. They also probably did not imagine what role their children would have in this space. Teachers, they would surely be working full-time outside the home, and so the question “Who makes food in our home” would likely arise quickly. Importantly, this essay has demonstrated that the answer to that question would not be a simple one. As the analysis of “Family Secrets” demonstrates, food choices and preparation would very likely need to be negotiated in the Kearns-Ecker residence. As is the case with community cookbooks, family cookbooks such as this one illustrate that women are still predominantly in charge of cooking tasks. Yet, the many male contributors from Brienne’s side, juxtaposed against the silent Ecker males, signal that this gendered assumption does not always hold true and that Jack is expected not only to be present in the kitchen but also to be an engaged participant. The presence of men and children in this family cookbook hints at the possibility that the stereotypes invoked by Brienne’s and Jack’s mothers and grandmothers could change; this new couple has the opportunity to show its children that women and men share food making duties. Someday Brienne and Jack’s children might represent distinct voices in this work or another version of their family’s cookbook. If nothing else, they will one day be able to access this book and draw inspiration from its subtle, though telling changes in kitchen politics

Parties annexes

Parties annexes